In his inaugural address, delivered on 20 January 1961, John F Kennedy urged: ‘My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’. These stirring words have become famous. What is less well known is that he then went on to say: ‘My fellow citizens of the world: do not ask what America will do for you but ask what together we can do for the freedom of man’. These words assumed a certain resonance in this week filled with much political and social turmoil.
First there was the story of how the Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, had abused his position as a member of parliament to fill his own coffers. He has, allegedly, used his parliamentary position to the advantage of two companies and pocketed a six-figure sum. A few days later emerged the story of Sir Geoffrey Cox, a distinguished lawyer, who has earned very large amounts of money by apparently confusing his business and parliamentary interests. Worse than that he did much of his work in the pleasant climes of the Caribbean, far from the constituents who elected him and who he is supposed to serve. No doubt a great deal more will unravel in the weeks ahead.
Meanwhile in Glasgow at COP 26 rather similar dynamic have been playing out. The more powerful nations – our own included – have been engaging in behaviour which is at best ambiguous and at worst hypocritical. The details vary but the motivations are the same. We want to have the reputation of being very serious about the climate crisis, a world leader even, but we want to continue developing fossil fuels and engaging in the industrial and economic activity which makes us rich. The word coined to label it is ‘greenwashing’.
And before we get too self-righteous about this we should confess that we too are complicit. We may do our recycling faithfully and be careful to buy products from sustainable sources. But, if we are honest, we want to maintain all the benefits of living in a rich nation. We have developed many expectations about the standard of living which we should enjoy, and do not easily relinquish them.
Kennedy’s words call us to work for the ‘freedom of man’, for the common good. That freedom is, for many millions, very simple and very tangible. They do not want their lands to be inundated by rising sea levels from melting ice. They do not want to be driven from their forest homes by the demand for woods, soya production and land speculation. They do not want their lives to be devastated by extreme weather events. And so on.
This is to say nothing of the ‘freedom of man’ in generations to come. The freedom of humankind involves at the very least the ability to survive and to exist with a measure of climate security. We have seen again this week that a sense of entitlement can easily lead to greed in politicians and the exercise of disproportionate economic power among G20 nations. If we are not easily moved by the plight of Pacific islanders whose land is imminently threatened, then maybe we are more open to the needs and expectations of our grandchildren.
It is no accident that most of the climate activists are young. They too have entitlements. It is no accident that it was the youngest of all American presidents who uttered this rallying call to serve the common good.
In the end it comes down to this: do we live with a sense of entitlement or with a sense of the common good. The choice has never been starker.
(Picture from Unsplash)